From the Sidelines: Faith and leadership spell success for Tigers

Published 11:26 pm Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Forget the numbers. Do not look at the opponents or the scores or the record.

The team that will take the field Friday night in Memorial Stadium, the same team that has emerged from the locker room for the past five weeks, is not 6-4. While AHSAA records will indicate to the contrary, anyone who has spent any amount of time around this team realizes that the atmosphere surrounding the Demopolis High School football program is nothing like the one that permeated it earlier in the year.

And again, it has nothing to do with the the win and loss columns. It barely has anything to do with Friday nights.

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The turnaround centers more around Monday through Thursday. It revolves around a decision. And it comes directly from the hearts of a group of young men who, by their own admission, put their collective foot in the ground and said “Enough is enough.”

Six weeks ago, everybody had an opinion about what was wrong with Demopolis. Coaches, parents, fans and casual observers all had their own ideas about what was missing from the Tigers’ recipe.

But the fact is that the Tigers had all the ingredients all along. They just had to come to that realization on their own.

That is a reality the DHS coaching staff accepted long ago. They had just reached a crossroads as to how to get their players to understand it.

But then, much to head coach Tom Causey’s delight, there came the perfect storm of circumstances.

First, the team lost its only region game of the year against Carver. That one stung a little bit.

Then, the seniors came together and decided as a group they were setting the tone. So they did just that.

They stayed after practice on Wednesdays before home games and painted the field.

They made a conscious effort to ensure there was someone to verbally encourage and chastise younger players as needed.

They found an extra gear in practice and pushed themselves a little harder than they previously knew they could go.

They listened a little more intently to their coaches.

They cheered a little harder from the sidelines on Friday night and seemed to play a little harder in between the lines.

But more importantly, they shut out the outside world.

They determined that the opinions of those on the outside looking in were not as important as their opinions of themselves. And they began measuring themselves by a different benchmark.

And while all of those seeds were planted after the loss to Carver, they didn’t seem to really take until the gutwrenching defeat against Hillcrest.

That one hurt. The Tigers wanted that game.

Losing, especially in the realm of sports, does something that virtually nothing else can do. It removes all pretense. It pulls back the veil and forces athletes and teams to look at themselves in a different light.

It is perhaps the greatest indicator of character in all of life. And when Demopolis’ curtain was pulled away, it learned that where it was as a team was nowhere near where it could be as a team.

Sure, the team was talented and tried hard. But it expected more from itself. And, for maybe the first time, the Tigers started believing they deserved the success they desired.

So, at the crossroads of their season, the Tigers did what champions do. They took the straight and narrow.

But what has really been at work here is far greater than football.

As much as the game can be a way of life at times in this society, for these players, the way they want to live their lives became a part of the game.

Subsequently, everything they did from the film session on Sunday to the run-through on Thursday became about doing things the right way. It became about having character for the sake of character.

And all of a sudden, everything started working itself out on the field.

And leading the charge has been a group of seniors, and even a handful of juniors, who have decided they deserve more from each other.

And more is exactly what they have given one another.

No matter what happens for the remainder of the season, Demopolis players can look one another in the eyes and know without doubt that they have helped one another learn the meaning of team. They have made each other better people.

And most importantly, they have grown together as developing adults. From their weekly devotionals to their Thursday night meals at local congregations to the prayers they say together at the conclusion of practices and games, these young men have continued to learn and acknowledge something much greater than themselves and much greater than football. And in so doing, they have found a success that few teams get to truly experience.

Don’t misunderstand. The Tigers want to win Friday night. And then they want to win four more games after that.

But they don’t talk about Birmingham much. Sure, reservations for the Super Six cross their minds. But they now understand that their championship game is played Monday through Thursday between the final school bell and a group prayer that ends practice.